Tag Archives: London art

My Tower Poppy

Like many I watched the red sea of poppies slowly fill the Tower’s moat and on one cold night in October when the installation was about half completed I joined many others watching as a full moon rose above the battlements of this iconic military building.

It was this remarkable juxtaposition – the cold hard walls of war dwarfing thousands of red spots each representing a lost life, with a pure white moon illuminating the scene.

[I]t was that experience that persuaded me to buy a small reminder of this representation England’s past. Having duly ordered my Poppy I almost forgot about when a text message alerted me to the impending arrival of my little piece of history. Upon opening the box a whole wave of emotions hit me. Outside it looks like any other white parcel, but when you lift the lid you are given a glimpse of the Tower with its cascading poppies printed on the underside of the lid.

Tower-by-moonlight

The ceramic poppy is surprisingly large, just fitting into the palm of your hand, about the size of a human heart, which of course is exactly what it represents.

Another analogy could be drawn from the soil still left sticking to the fixing washers enclosed. Could that be likened to the mire of the Somme trenches?

A small booklet is enclosed which gives a history of the artwork entitled Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red and gives details of the charities that will benefit from the sale of the poppies. For me, one story stood out above all the others and relates to a remarkable coincidence.

Arthur James Fisher was one of the million men wounded or killed during the First World War at the battle of the Somme. Shot in the right arm on 31st July 1916, Arthur survived but struggled with his injuries for the rest of his life.

Exactly 96 years later, on 31 July 2012, his great-grandson Flight Lieutenant Lance Levin was shot in his right arm while piloting a helicopter rescue mission in Afghanistan.

Lance is still serving, but required several operations and has been supported by Help for Heroes. Being injured on the same day as his great-grandfather is nothing more than an extraordinary coincidence but, as he says: “If it can happen to my great-grandfather and to me, it will happen to many more generations to come who will need our support.”

Originally I was going to plant my poppy in the garden, but now I think what it represents with its imperfect form and striking bright red colour this symbol demands a more considered resting place. But where?

Seeing Red – and other colours

For some time now I have been meaning to visit the National Gallery’s summer exhibition – Making Colour, claimed by the organisers to be the first exhibition of its kind in the United Kingdom. The ability to produce colours has long been a quest of man, and for someone who drives a vehicle, the colour that many artists would describe as a non-colour, I have always been fascinated in man’s ability to produce colour in its myriad forms.

[T]he exhibition staged in the Sainsbury Wing, the gallery that Prince Charles memorably described of its predecessor as: “. . . monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”

The inside of the Sainsbury Wing has a rather austere soulless air about it. Wide staircases, high ceilings, artificial light; one wonders what the original design that Prince Charles lambasted was like. But I was here to see colour, not acres of cream Portland stone.

The exhibition is split up into six rooms and the entrance lobby. A very user friendly audio guide is available for a modest £3. This I would recommend, the videos on paint preparation are worth the price alone.

In the lobby is J. W. M. Turner’s paint box found in his studio after his death, alongside his very chaotic palette. Adjacent is a self-portrait by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brin. A fashionable lady showing off her pristine palette organised with colours running in sequence.

Le-Brun And this is how the exhibition is organised each room showing the development of colour: The Quest for Blue; Painting Green; Fashionably Yellow; Seeing Red; Royal Purple; and Gold and Silver.

For me the star room is undoubtedly The Quest for Blue, that most expensive and ethereal of colours. Many blues had green undertones or faded over time until the Afghani stone lapis lazuli was discovered. Customarily used to paint the Virgin Mary’s robes it was considered to be more expensive than gold.

Roger-Hiorns-Seizure-2008 But the most interesting piece in the exhibition is not a piece of figurative art but what might have been described as an installation. In 2008 artist Roger Hiorns flooded an abandoned flat in Harper Road with 75,000 litres of copper sulphate solution. When he drained it a month later, every inch of the flat’s surfaces was covered in piercing blue copper sulphite crystals, one of the pigments used in modern paints.

Roger Hiorns named it ‘Seizure’ and it became a cult hit. It has since moved to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, a place utterly unlike the rough-and-tumble of brutalist Peckham. Instead, the work now sits among the gentle rolling hills.

Making Colour is at the National Gallery until 7 September.

Roger Hiorns Seizure by aqnb CC BY-NC-SA

Epstein’s door knob

News that London Underground intends to sell 55 Broadway for conversion into luxury flats for the big knobs of business has prompted me to write about this iconic Art Deco building. But I fear the narrative could read like a Carry On script.

Built above St. James’s Park Station in 1929 it was London’s first skyscraper and hailed as a masterpiece – except for one small detail which stuck out as unacceptable.

[T]he greatest sculptors of the day worked in situ to decorate the building: Henry Moore, Eric Gill and to stand erect over the door canopy Jacob Epstein carved ‘Night’ and ‘Day’ to catch the public’s eye.

Charles Holden designed the building and had collaborated with Epstein before on the British Medical Association’s building in the Strand (now Zimbabwe House) which had caused a mighty outrage at the time, but these figures kept their full manhood’s for a time. Later in the 1930’s a gentleman pedestrian was struck on the head by a falling stone phallus from one of the statues, and the other statues then were also rendered eunuchs to prevent similar mishaps.

Holden’s client for 55 Broadway was the legendary Frank Pick (enter Kenneth Williams inserting an inappropriate rolling ‘r’ when mentioning his surname) the man who did more to create today’s Underground than any other.

When Epstein’s two figures were exposed there was a storm of reactionary fury, with newspaper leader columns advising men not to let their wives and daughters see these abominations. For ‘Night’ showed a naked muscular man sat with his legs apart and his hands in perhaps not the most appropriate position topped off with a self-satisfied smile on his face. His naked son is looking at his father but sculpted in profile allowing his penis to remain visible. Surely if he wanted a hug from Dad he would be facing away from the public? But Epstein was always a cocky character.

The protests were predictable, white paint was thrown over it, which no sooner had it been cleaned off, tar was ejaculated from a spray gun and were it not for the timely intervention of a police officer, a coating of feathers would have followed.

Frank Pick put the debate of the penis into his own hands, so to speak, and threatened to resign if its removal found favour with his superiors.

Claims that the poor boy’s willy needed overzealous circumcision because rain ran down it and formed a perfect arc of water on to any hapless lady walking below – insert inappropriate innuendo – a compromise was agreed by reducing the affronting appendage by one-and-a-half inches. Just how public sensibilities were assuaged by this length was never revealed, but as James Bond once said it’s not good going off half-cocked.

At the time the whittled willy seemed to keep the public happy but now badly weathered and discoloured with streaks of dirt and will need a brisk rub down before future buyers of 55 Broadway will be satisfied with their purchase.

Urban philistines

Are we becoming a city of philistines? I ask this as public art is becoming more vulnerable to deliberate damage or theft, for until recently works of art left out in public spaces only had to contend with the occasional pigeon defecation.

In the past anyone who had good reason to despise a statue would limit their protests to something impermanent. Gladstone’s statue is a case in point.

[T]heodore Bryant director of the Bryant & May match factory, a prominent liberal, had deducted a shilling [5p] from the wages of his staff as a contribution to the erection Gladstone’s statue near the factory. The match girls who worked in appalling conditions for a pittance went to the unveiling, and a gruesome story is told by Annie Besant that some cut their arms and let their blood trickle on the marble, paid for, in truth, by their blood.

The Duke of York statue just off The Mall cost £25,000 to build and finance was raised by subscription – each individual in the army was required to contribute a day’s pay. Although many in the army resented this deduction the statute was never desecrated.

But recently we have had a Barbara Hepworth stolen from Dulwich Park and probably sold for scrap, the charming bronze Doctor Salter’s Daydream which once sat on a bench in Bermondsey has been stolen while the accompanying piece – the good doctor’s daughter holding a cat – has been n forced into hiding. A Banksy by that most ephemeral of artists, who expects his pieces to be painted over, has been ripped from the wall it was painted upon to end up in an American auction house and when a statue of Bomber Harris was installed outside St. Clement’s Church a spate of red paint throwing occurred protesting about the bombing of Germany in World War II.

The London Borough of Tower Hamlets is proposing to sell a Henry Moore entitled ‘Draped Seated Women’ known to the locals as ‘Old Flo’ hoping to raise £20 million and another Moore ‘Knife Edge Piece’, which stood on Abingdon Green near the Houses of Parliament, has been undergoing restoration after decades of graffiti artist’s work.

Now with the death of Baroness Thatcher a debate has arisen upon where to site a suitable monument. Its detractors argue that any representation of her in a public space will inevitable be vandalised. Hardly surprising since in 2002 at Guildhall Art Gallery a marble statue of the Iron Lady was decapitated first by a cricket bat and when that failed a metal rope.

So what is the future of public art? Will our parks be devoid of any artworks unless guarded night and day?

Where are the Centre Point fountains?

There cannot be many post-war buildings which have stoked up as much controversy as Centre Point.

Designed by Richard Seifert this brutalist building was completed in 1966 and at 398ft was the second highest in London.

Controversy did not stop at its uncompromising design as the building remained empty long after its completion.

[C]entre Point’s developer, Harry Hyams, sat on a rising asset as its capital appreciation far outweighed the rental income with the added bonus that the un-let office block did not attract rates.

Nestled at the windy base of this building, caused by the downdraft as the wind hits its upper floors, once stood a blue mosaic lined pool with five triple-tined-Y-shaped fountains.

Operators of these fountains had an idiosyncratic approach to when they should be turned on. On hot summer evenings girls waiting for the Astoria to open would sit on the fountain’s parameter wall staring at an empty pool safe in the knowledge they would remain dry. On windy winter nights, aided by the downdraft from 35 storeys above them, hapless pedestrians walking past would get soaked.

Now where these iconic Grade II listed fountains once stood there is what must be the largest hole in Europe with Centre Point teetering on the precipice as engineers construct a new station for CrossRail. When finished in their place will sit two wonky glass pyramids which the designers describe as crystal sculptural forms.

The Centre Point fountains were the work of German artist Jupp Dermbach-Mayen who built the fountains at his Swiss Cottage studio in 1963. The Twentieth Century Society claim the planned removal of them was symptomatic of a wider problem of post-war art being separated from its architectural context.

Those infamously-sporadic concrete flower fountains will be missed, though . . .